God Save the Corbyn? Why the Left Needs Religion

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE CAMBRIDGE GLOBALIST ON JANUARY 28th 2016

‘I

s he on God?’

David Margolick, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair had just asked the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, a question about the role religion played in his relation with George W. Bush. Alastair Campbell, who had remained silent up to this point, leant forwards: ‘Is he on God? We don’t do God. I’m sorry. We don’t do God.’ And thus, with all the pith that Campbell could muster, was stated the position of New Labour on religion — ‘We don’t do God’.

Except it was not true — New Labour certainly did do God. The former editor of the Times, Sir Peter Stothard, recounts an anecdote, in preparing for a TV appearance on the eve of the Iraq War, Blair announced that he would like to conclude the broadcast with the words ‘God bless you’. At this point, according to Stothard, there occurred ‘a noisy team revolt in which every player appears to have been complaining at once’. This was ‘not a good idea’, one of the entourage suggested, whilst another unidentified member of the Blair team is reported to have said: ‘You are talking to lots of people who don’t want chaplains pushing stuff down their throats.’ When Blair responded in exasperation with ‘you lot are the most ungodly lot I have ever…’, his speechwriter Peter Hyman, a Jew, quickly countered: ‘Ungodly? Count me out!’ What was purportedly a meeting between a political party who ‘didn’t do God’ was swiftly becoming an impromptu Nicene Council — ‘That’s not the same God’, one of Blair’s bit-part theological advisors posited. Blair could not accept this. ‘It is the same God’ he replied defiantly. In the end, however, the phrase was dropped in favour of a cursory ‘thank you’.

It was not strictly true, then, that New Labour ‘didn’t do God’. The problem was that many of them did ‘do God’ but differently and the result was usually controversy and disagreement. It was one such controversy, emerging from out of an article entitled ‘Why I am a Christian’, for the Sunday Telegraph in 1996 that lead to the decision by Campbell that Blair should no longer discuss his faith. As Campbell saw it, issues of faith and religion are too easily misconstrued in public life to be of any use to the modern politician and so, as a result, Blair’s Christianity was allowed to fall by the wayside.

At least, this was the plan. But as Theo Hobson points out, this was hardly what transpired through the evolution of New Labour. Instead, Blair ‘won the trust of the middle class by presenting himself as an idealistic vicar who was a bit too cool for the church.’ Of course, this came with its downsides — Blair earned a reputation as a ‘sanctimonious git with a messiah complex’ but, in the end, this was a small price to pay in light of the electoral success it brought with it.

And this is where those on the Left in Britain so often find themselves: caught in between a ‘progressive liberal’ distaste for anything approaching religious belief and the realisation that the country still exhibits vestigial remainders of its religious past which, if harnessed correctly, can transpire in electoral success. Where New Labour tended towards the ‘progressive liberal’ pole of the dichotomy, Old Labour were more likely to rehearse Morgan Phillips maxim that ‘the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than Marxism’. Beyond this, the so-called ‘hard Left’, whatever this label is taken to mean, are more often than not associated with a conscious atheism that sees religion as just another example of a cosseted conservative ideology. The question becomes: is there any place for religion on the Left within modern Britain? And, if this is the case, how might the Labour Party, in its current ‘leftist’ iteration, use this to its own advantage?

The continuing role of religion in Britain

The fact of the matter is, while New Labour ‘didn’t do God’, many people in Britain still do. This is not to deny that religion is in decline within the United Kingdom; it would be foolhardy to suggest otherwise, as a number of reports into religious affiliation have reiterated in the not-too-distant past. However, it is equally important not to downplay the role of religion within the present day. In a BSA survey, carried out last year, it was found that, although there is a marked drop in people ascribing a religious preference (those defining as ‘no religion’ almost doubled from 25.7% in 2011 to 49% in 2015), one out of every two people in Britain ascribed to some form of religion. Of those 50%, a recent YouGov poll, has suggested, a certain percentage would claim that religion ‘is not important to their lives’ but the remaining figure is an overwhelmingly high 32% of people in Britain. To put this into perspective, the current Conservative government won a majority in the House of Commons with 36.9% of an electorate who turned out at 66.1% — that is, around 25% of the electorate. Those claiming a serious religious attachment in modern Britain, therefore, are a not insignificant number of people.

As for the decline in religion experienced over the last few decades, the assumption that it is only a matter of time before religion becomes a thing of the past is becoming increasingly doubtful. Conventionally, the narratives of secularism have followed a logic which supposes that, as we humans attain a greater agglomeration of knowledge, there is a diminishing need for religious explanations of our world. According to these lines of reasoning, is it supposed we were once in the grip of a ‘master narrative’ — the Christian account of salvation history, for example —but have now succeeded in removing ourselves from such oppressive frameworks of knowledge. Once these frameworks are deconstructed entirely, it is assumed, there will be nothing for religious believers to hold onto and religion, like God before it, will be pronounced ‘dead’.

In A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor critiques these sorts of accounts of secularism. As he sees it, these ‘subtraction stories’ presuppose an ahistorical logic which portrays the passage to modernity in terms of a ‘sloughing off’ of what he calls the ‘bulwarks of belief’ — the underlying ideas that motivated our worldviews that have subsequently been found to be fallacious. On Taylor’s reading of the historical development, however, such narratives are reductive. It is not the case that we have managed to cast off the frameworks that structure our beliefs but rather these frameworks themselves have been subtly modified. Where once religious belief had been non-negotiable and heresy was proscribed, we now find ourselves in a cultural milieu where it is possible to question the existence of God. Ascription to religious ideas has not become impossible, then, but rather has become more challenging insofar as believers are now faced with a number of plausible alternative to their worldview.

In place of the ‘subtraction stories’ of modernity, therefore, Taylor presents an account of secularism in which ‘religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested).’ As such, as one contestable worldview amongst others, religion is just as a liable to grow as decline in the West. One only has to look at the statistics in France in which Christianity has seen a 4.5% increase in the last 5 years and in which an adherence to atheism/agnosticism has shrunk by as much as 15%. Religion, it would appear, is here to stay and, although its decline in Britain is not insignificant, it will continue to retain its wide-spread influence across the country up until the time of the next General Election in 2020. In light of Taylor’s re-reading of the secular phenomenon, then, the decline in religious ascription within contemporary Britain should not be read as a nail in the coffin for religion as we know it.

Is religion predominantly for Tories nowadays?

However, in spite of this conclusion, it is hard to imagine the Left becoming particularly excited about the continued existence of a large religious bloc within the electorate. For one, there is a psephological truism that, the more devoted an adherent to their religion, the more likely they are to vote right. A 2013 YouGov poll carried out as part of the Westminster Faith Debates found that, of those people polled who claimed religious affiliation, those who also professed a belief in God were almost always more likely to vote Conservative than their more sceptical associates. More likely than not, this can be explained by the close correspondence between traditional forms of Christianity and ‘small-c’ conservatism. Yet aligned with the decline in religion in the UK, the result can only be a rightwards shift in religious voting preference as the less committed religious adherents drop off, leaving behind a remnant of right-leaning traditionalists.  It would appear, then, that the Left should set little hope in store for future electoral inroads into the religious vote.

And yet, there is one facet to this group of religious traditionalists that has escaped the notice of politicians on both sides of the political spectrum. It is this: that, in general, the more committed an individual to their religion, the more likely their political leanings are to be parasitic upon their religious beliefs than vice-versa. What this means is that the religious sections of the electorate may, in fact, offer a potential swing vote the size of which is not insignificant.

Now, of course, many of these individuals will vote tribally. A 2013 study  conducted by the think-tank Theos into ‘Voters and Values’ found that the Christian vote in the UK seems to apportion itself across the political spectrum according to denominations, with Catholics more likely to tend left, Anglicans more likely to tend right, and Nonconformists sitting somewhere in the middle. What was the most interesting fact that emerged within this study, however, was the extent to which ‘values voting’ has become obsolete within the British political scene. For, unlike America in which a voting intention can be plotted against a number of key moral issues, in the UK morality plays almost no part in the way in which an individual votes. According to their research, 0% of Anglicans put ‘Morals’ as the most important factor in their decision about how to vote in the 2010 election, with only 0.8% of Nonconformists, 0.4% of those of non-Christian faiths and 0.1% of Catholics admitting to the centrality of moral issues to their electoral decisions.

On the face of it, this might seem to fly in the face of the claim that the religious traditionalist is more likely to subordinate their political ideas to their religious beliefs. What it does reveal, though, is the extent to which issues of morality have been evacuated from the political sphere. There are a number of historical explanations as to why this might be the case. On the one hand, with the ubiquity of a form of progressive liberalism within British politics, the sorts of moral issues that used to be spoken of as important factors in ‘values voting’ have become inconsequential. Gay marriage and abortion law are so widely accepted that it seems unlikely that they will ever attain any electoral cachet within the UK. The old values have passed away, leaving the small-c conservative with only political grounds upon which to pitch her tent.

Religion as the enemy of neo-liberalism

On the other hand, though, there is a more latent historical explanation for this evacuation of morality from the political sphere. Whilst it is not unproblematic to speak of the emergence of the socio-cultural phenomenon of ‘neo-liberalism’ within a Western milieu, it is clear that what has occurred is something like a marketisation of value in which the problems of cultural relativism are solved by deferring the the economic logic of the market. In a neo-liberal society, following the tenets of classic liberalism, the individual is taken to be the arbiter of value. However, in the adjudication of any disputes within the public sphere, a market logic is introduced which makes no claims about inherent value but only seeks to ameliorate the problem through the application of economic principles. In the end, value becomes something privately determined and the public sphere is exempted from anything like a prescriptive role in these affairs. At the conclusion of this process, the political realm is evaluated according to entirely economic ratios and any other means of valuation is rejected. The elimination of ‘value voting’ from the religious vote in modern Britain, therefore, would become a matter of course as the slow escalation of neo-liberalism affected a complete separation of value and vote.

It is at this juncture that the particular brand of Leftism that Jeremy Corbyn is developing within the Labour Party becomes pertinent. As a form of political engagement that has been touted as an attempt to return principle into politics, Corbyn’s is an attempt to reverse the neo-liberal evacuation of value from the polis. While the majority of commentators find themselves caught up in the peripheral details of this programme, there is a more fundamental point which motivates Corbyn’s political vision — that is, there is a collective responsibility which exists between human beings which arises from out of a recognition of the inherent dignity of each individual person. The nuclear disarmament, the position on accepting refugees, the anti-austerity focus at the heart of Corbynomics, the re-nationalisation of the service sector, the protection of the welfare state: all these are impelled by this basic idea that all human persons possess a value that cannot simply be overlooked by the state, but is the very preserve of true governance.

This cuts through the logic of the homo oeconomicus that neo-liberalism propounds. Under its terms, the individual is not to be considered a possessor of value only insofar as she participates (or not) within an economic system (in this sense, the non-aspirers so derided by the current government are considered less than human). Rather, the individual possesses an intrinsic value prior to her contribution to the economic sphere which is the basis of her participation within it. As such, the ideal of a welfare state induces the government to inquire not simply what the individual can do for its economy, but what its economy can do for this individual. There is a reversal here, then, that throws the neo-liberal logic on its head: the state does not disregard the values of its people but is, in fact, the protector of these values, preventing any one value from becoming hegemonic. Corbynism, therefore, presents the people with a gospel — a message of good news in which human beings need no longer remain enslaved to the market logic of the neoliberal state which treats individuals as means to ends and runs roughshod over the lives of the most vulnerable in society.

It is at this point, finally, that we can see how the Left can forge a relationship with religion even within the present day. For it is through the re-valuation of the mundus politicus that the Labour Party might potentially win over the religious vote in the next general election. In practice, this will require a willingness on the part of the Labour Party to engage with the various religious groups within the UK — raising questions as to the responsibility of religious people within the political sphere, emphasising the moral ramifications of the current government’s policies, reminding those ascribing to religious positions of the sorts of underlying principles which govern their lives. In many respects, this might seem to be counter-intuitive within the current political climate. Yet as the Tory government continue to devalue the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable in society, more and more religious individuals will find it harder to ignore their neighbour on the side of the road, and may be turned, Samaritan-like, to act against their sensibilities within the political world in which they find themselves.

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